When Iraqi state television began transmitting internationally a few months ago, Zaid Altahan bought a satellite dish and got more than he expected: A news source that will help him decide how to vote.
In preparation for this week’s parliamentary election, Altahan has been glued to Al Iraqiya, which carries debates among a dizzying number of candidates he’d never heard of.
“It’s not like the States where you know a senator and vote for him,” said Altahan, 43, who fled Iraq 20 years ago to avoid persecution and is now a real estate investor in this Los Angeles suburb. “A lot of us don’t know these people running. Iraqi TV is doing a good job showing the new faces.”
Iraqi vote organizers estimate about 240,000 Iraqis living in the United States are eligible to cast absentee ballots Dec. 13-15 at polls in Pomona, San Francisco and San Diego; Nashville, Tenn.; Chicago; Detroit; Dearborn, Mich., and McLean, Va.
The expatriates will help elect the 275 members of the National Assembly, which will rule the country over the next four years.
But there are more than 7,700 candidates, either running as independents or as members of political parties in 19 broad coalitions.
“Now we have overkill,” said Talal Ibrahim, deputy coordinator for the U.S. Iraqi vote.
Ibrahim, 53, a Shiite who fled Iraq before the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980 and now lives in Aliso Viejo, said that while most voters know whom they’ll support, Iraqi TV is helping with last-minute decisions.
Egyptian soap operas
“I have the station on 24 hours a day at my house,” he said.
A $250 satellite dish can pick up the station for free. Besides news, the station has Egyptian soap operas, sporting events and traditional Iraqi music.
Iraqi TV was bankrolled by the Pentagon after Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003 but is now funded by Iraq’s finance ministry, said Ali Ahmed, the station’s Washington bureau chief. Editorial decisions are independent, he said, likening the arrangement to the BBC, the British government-financed news network.
“All Iraqis have the right to appear on this station,” Ahmed said. All candidates or political parties were offered five minutes of free air time in the last several weeks to explain their platforms, he said.
Mouthpiece for some, lifeline for others
Many viewers in Iraq see the station as a government mouthpiece slanted toward the governing Shiite majority.
But even though many U.S. Iraqis also perceive it as Shiite-dominated, they say it’s still worth watching.
“They call it the Iraqi channel but it’s not really the Iraqi channel,” said the Rev. Noel Gorgis, a Catholic priest in North Hollywood who fled Iraq before the first Gulf War in 1991. “It’s for the Shiites, but there are still good parts to see what is going on with elections.”
Though the vote in the United States is largely symbolic — the more than 14 million eligible Iraqi voters worldwide dwarf the U.S. total — Iraqi expatriates consider their participation vital.
“We didn’t have a free Iraqi television station under Saddam, there wasn’t any free press, even making a phone call was dangerous,” said Imam Mostafa Al-Qazwini, who fled Iraq in 1971 and leads prayer at the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa. “As expatriates, we are still waiting for peace and stability to go home.”